Oswego’s historic downtown business district honored with National Register recognition

A roughly two-block section of Oswego’s historic downtown business district called the Downtown Oswego Historic District by village officials has been added to the National Register of Historic Places maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The bounds of the new downtown Oswego historic district added to the National Register of Historic Places is outlined in red on this map. It includes some of the community’s most historic areas.

The area selected for recognition is that section of Main Street from the north side of Jackson to the south side of Washington Street, which is generally considered the heart of downtown. That stretch of Main Street includes the brick and limestone Union Block on the east side of the street built in 1867; the classic frame false-front Rank Building, built by Oswego Postmaster Lorenzo Rank in 1874; and the Burkhart Block on the south side of Washington Street. On the west side of Main at Washington Street, the Schickler and Knapp buildings erected by two of Oswego’s German immigrant businessmen in the late 1890s and early 1900s are included, as is the 1840s native limestone Parke Building at the northwest corner of Main and Jackson.

The first settlers on the site of what is considered the original village of Oswego were William and Rebecca (Pearce) Wilson, who arrived with the extended Pearce family in 1833. Rebecca’s brother, Daniel, settled on what’s now Fox Bend Golf Course, where the old Pearce farmhouse still stands just east of the Waubonsie Creek bridge on Route 34, while brothers John and Walter settled west of the river. The Smiths built their cabin at the busy modern “Five Corners” intersection of Routes 25 and 34, and Jefferson Street.

But the Pearces were farmers, not town builders. It took a couple enthusiastic entrepreneurs, Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. “Squire” Arnold, to see that the lay of the land on the bluff overlooking the Fox River’s narrowest point for miles in either direction would be a good spot to build a new town.

The 1838 survey plat of Oswego Township showed the small village of Oswego at the Fox River narrows. I’ve highlighted the roads that crossed at Oswego, making it an area transportation hub. Also important was the Fox River ford just upstream from Waubonsie Creek’s mouth on the river.

The site also happened to be the intersection of four well-used Native American trails. One came across the prairie from the west, crossed the river, and headed east and a bit north to the ford across the DuPage River and on to Chicago, while another branched off that trail at Oswego and headed southeast across the prairie to Walker’s Grove, also on the DuPage, and then on to Chicago as well. From Oswego where those two branches merged, another trail headed southwest to Ottawa. A fourth trail came up the west side of the Fox River from Ottawa crossed the river on the Oswego ford, and ran north to the new settlement of LaFox—later renamed Geneva.

Arnold and Judson realized that ford was another geographical plus for their potential town site. Located just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek on the Fox River, the ford featured shallow, slow-moving water running over a smooth limestone floor that extended all the way across the river. Native Americans had used it for thousands of years and the White pioneers made immediate use of it as soon as they arrived. It would remain the only way to cross the river until the first timber-frame bridge spanned the river at Oswego in 1848.

Arnold, an ambitious emigrant from New York, had some experience with town building, having been involved, along with Chester Ingersoll, with turning the Walker’s Grove settlement on the DuPage River into the village of Plainfield in 1834 and then serving as that new town’s first postmaster.

The original 20-block village laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold is colored pink in this clip from Warner & Beers’ 1870 plat book and atlas of Kendall County. The plat illustrates how each block was laid out bisected by alleys running perpendicular to each other. (Little White School Museum collection)

Judson, a wealthy frontier businessman, like Arnold originally from New York but most recently from Michigan, partnered with Arnold to lay out their village on a square plan aligned with the east bank of the Fox River. As platted in 1835 by the two (and making, by a couple months, Oswego Kendall County’s oldest municipality), the new village contained 18 blocks, each 280.5 feet (17 rods in surveyor’s terms) square and containing eight lots, each 66 feet wide and 132 feet deep. Two 16.5-foot alleys running perpendicular to each other bisected each block.

They named all of the streets but two after U.S. Presidents, including Harrison, Adams, Madison, Monroe, Jefferson, Jackson, Washington, Van Buren, and Tyler. The two non-Presidential street names were Main and Benton, named after U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a political ally of President Andrew Jackson and strong supporter of westward expansion.

The two originally named their new town “Hudson,” after the river in New York with which they were both so familiar. Arnold opened the first store in the new village right in the middle of what would become the village’s business district. Both Judson and Arnold began pushing for Congress to grant their new town a post office, and those wishes were granted on Jan. 24, 1837, with Arnold named the first postmaster.

The only known photo of the east side of Main Street as it looked before the devastating February 1867 fire destroyed all the buildings pictured, including the stately National Hotel. Levi Arnold opened Oswego’s first store and post office in the building to the right of the National Hotel. (Little White School Museum collection)

But there was a fly in the town-builders’ ointment. For whatever reason, Congress named the new post office “Lodi.” Lodi wasn’t a bad name, of course, carrying the name of a town in New York’s Finger Lakes Region, but it apparently didn’t suit Arnold and Judson. Within some months, the few permanent male residents held a referendum to choose a new permanent name. When the few votes were counted, neither Hudson nor Lodi had more than one vote. Instead, “Oswego” won with two votes in its column.

Kendall County was established in February 1841. The General Assembly appointed a three-man commission to pick a site for a county seat and they chose the hamlet of Yorkville, six miles south of Oswego. But with all those roads leading to the new town, Oswego was growing faster than other areas of the new county. So Arnold, Judson and other Oswego boosters immediately began encouraging moving the county seat to Oswego. They engineered a referendum in 1845 that populous Oswego won over the more centrally located Yorkville.

This view, looking north from Washington Street and reminiscent of cow towns in the Old West, shows the west side of Oswego’s Main Street, around time time the 1867 fire destroyed the east side of the business district. The only building in this image still standing is the native limestone Parke Building on the right side of the photograph. The building now houses the American Male & Company’s clothing stores. (Little White School Museum collection)

A new courthouse was built just outside the downtown area on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Jefferson, and Monroe streets. With that, Oswego’s business community began to cater as much to the traveling trade of the circuit court’s judges and lawyers as to the surrounding agricultural area with three hotels and numerous blacksmith and wagonwright shops.

But Oswego’s location in the northeast corner of the county was proving inconvenient for residents needing to go to the county seat in those days of horse and buggy and horseback travel. So another referendum was held in 1859, and the voters approved moving the county seat back to Yorkville. With the Civil War intruding, it took a few years to get a new courthouse built, but in June 1864, the county’s records were hauled down to Yorkville, and Oswego returned to its status as a mercantile hub for the surrounding agricultural area.

From the time Judson and Arnold platted it 187 years ago, Oswego’s downtown catered to the residents of the community itself, as well as to the farmers working the land around it, as well as to those elected county officials and members of the legal community during its stint as the county seat. As such it boasted a wide variety of businesses from the aforementioned hotels, to retail merchants, to service providers like barbers, milliners, and others.

Postmaster Lorenzo Rank built this false-front Italianate commercial building to house the Oswego Post Office in 1874. He lived in the building’s second floor apartment. In 1912, the post office moved south to the brick Burkhart Block. Rank willed the building to the Village of Oswego and it was used for a variety of purposes, including the site of the private lending library operated by the village’s Nineteenth Century Women’s Club. When the tax-supported library was built in 1964, the building was sold. It has housed a number of businesses over the years, including hosting for many years the offices of the Oswego weekly Ledger-Sentinel. The building is still used for business purposes. (Little White School Museum collection)

When I looked at the way the district is drawn, it occurred to me that it includes the sites of five of Oswego’s earliest post offices. While the building that housed it is long gone, the village’s first post office opened by Arnold in conjunction with his store (the first in the village) in 1837 was located at what is now 68 Main Street. It moved across the street and north to the limestone Parke Building at Main and Jackson in the 1840s and then back across the street and south to Lorenzo Rank’s new building in 1874. When the brick Burkhart Block was finished at the southeast corner of Main and Washington in 1912, the post office moved there before moving for the last time back north at the northwest corner of Main and Washington into the Schickler Building. Its last move was out of downtown altogether to the northeast corner of Madison and Jackson in March 1969.

After all the storefronts on the east side of Main were destroyed by fire in February 1867, a consortium of businessmen built the brick and limestone Union Block. Druggist Levi Hall was the first to move into the new block, locating in the storefront at the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

As noted, the designated historic district includes a lot of Oswego’s business and economic history. The brick Union Block on the east side of Main at Washington opened late in 1867 following the devastating February 1867 fire that destroyed everything on that side of Main from Washington to Jackson except the limestone horse barn of the stately National Hotel. The first occupant of the new block was Levi Hall, who opened his new drug store on the site of Arnold’s first store in December 1867 with a special sale of Christmas toys and decorations, a tradition that would continue through several subsequent owners for the next century.

By 1885, the brick and limestone Union Block on east side of Oswego’s Main Street was joined by Lorenzo Rank’s post office building, W.J. Collins’ Star Roller Skating Rink (with flagpole), and at the far left of the photo, the Shoger Brothers livery stable at Main and Jackson, one day to become the home of Zentmyer Ford Sales. (Little White School Museum collection

Other buildings came and went downtown including the Star Roller Skating Rink that occupied the site of the old National Hotel on the east side of Main Street for several years.

The west side of the street didn’t experience the same urban renewal caused by a raging fire. Instead, the old frame buildings were gradually replaced by newer brick buildings, first the Oswego Saloon in 1897, the Knapp Building—site of today’s Masonic Hall and Oswego Family Restaurant—adjoining it to the south in 1898. Then in 1899, John Schickler built his block of brick stores next to the Knapp Building, filling the space from there all the way south to Washington Street.

Meanwhile north of all that brick construction, Henry Helle was maintaining his shoemaking establishment at the southwest corner of Main and Jackson.

Earl Zentmyer bought the Parke Building on Main at Jackson from Gus Shoger and opened a combination service station and Ford dealership in 1922. This snapshot was taken in 1927. (Little White School Museum collection)

Across Jackson Street to the south, O.A. Parke’s limestone former post office and general store had subsequently become home to a variety of stores and other businesses, including a bowling alley, jewelry store, farm implement business, tin smithing business, and blacksmith shop. In 1922, a young fellow from Aurora named Earl Zentmyer bought it from its owner, Gus Shoger, and turned it into a combination gas station and Ford dealership. Zentmyer eventually bought the old Shoger Brothers Livery Stable across Main Street from the stone building and operated it as a service station and Ford dealership until it burned in 1965.

The Burkhart Block at Main and Washington was built by Oliver and Clinton Burkhart to house the Oswego State Bank in the corner storefront, the Burkhart & Shoger auto dealership to the left, and the Oswego Post Office and the switchboard for the Chicago Telephone Company in the two storefronts to the right of the bank. This photo was taken about 1913 by Dwight Young. (Little White School Museum collection)

Also included in the historic district is the brick Burkhart Block, completed at the southeast corner of Main and Washington in 1911 to mainly as the home for the Oswego State Bank in the corner storefront. But also originally housed in the structure were the Burkhart and Shoger Studebaker dealership, the new Oswego Post Office, and the local switchboard of the Chicago (later Illinois Bell) Telephone Company.

Oswego’s streets were unpaved when this photo of an early auto northbound on Main Street through the heart of the business district about 1905. During that era, the hitching posts lining the street were not decorative; they were meant to be used. More than 100 years later, the downtown streetscape still looks familiar. (Little White School Museum collection)

Over the years the very transportation routes that allowed Oswego’s downtown to grow in the first place conspired to curb that growth. In 1870, the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road linked the coalfields lying between Ottawa and Streator with Geneva, running through Oswego and giving it a direct link with nearby Aurora. Regular passenger service meant the shopping opportunities of that much larger town were just a short train ride away, putting a brake on downtown Oswego’s expansion much beyond its three block base. Then in 1900, downtown Oswego was directly linked to downtown Aurora when the interurban trolley tracks of the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway were completed. For the next 22 years, shopping in downtown Aurora was a short, cheap trolley ride away, serving to keep the selection and size of downtown businesses small.

The final blow to any major expansion of the downtown was dealt by the advent of practical, economical automobiles, trucks, and buses coupled with the post-World War I state-financed drive to build all-weather hard roads. Initial concrete highways roughly followed some of those old 1830s routes through Oswego, again making it a transportation crossroads. In all, three state highways started in Oswego and one U.S. highway passed through following those old trails. And that made it even more convenient for residents to do much of their shopping elsewhere.

Oswego’s modern downtown, recently recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has not only managed to preserve a number of historic structures, but is still home to a mix of successful small retail and service businesses. (Little White School Museum collection)

Even so, Oswego’s downtown and near-downtown maintained a mix of retail and service businesses that catered just fine to the surrounding agricultural area, from general merchandise and grocery stores to doctors and dentists to grain and livestock marketing firms.

The heart of any town is its downtown business district. Oswego’s village government and business community have been both lucky and skillful at keeping the downtown healthy, willing to spend both tax dollars and funds generated by the business community on public improvements over the years that have kept it an inviting place to visit, shop, and run a business.

And to top it all off, Oswego’s downtown is also one of the village’s—and Kendall County’s—most historic areas, anchoring the greater Oswego community since 1835.

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Filed under Architecture, Business, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

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